Concern over Afghan civilians slows NATO advance

MARJAH, Afghanistan Fri Feb 19, 2010 6:31pm EST

An Afghan soldier carries a child and escorts his family through a market in Marjah in Helmand province, south Afghanistan, February 18, 2010. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

An Afghan soldier carries a child and escorts his family through a market in Marjah in Helmand province, south Afghanistan, February 18, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

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MARJAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Whenever Afghanistan's Taliban turn up the heat in the battle with U.S. Marines, the troops have to think twice before retaliating or calling in air strikes in order to avoid civilian casualties.

That caution is guiding a NATO and Afghan military offensive designed to break the Taliban's grip on their last major stronghold, in Helmand province, without alienating the local population.

But while the strategy may raise chances of local government officials winning the trust of Afghans as they try to stamp their authority, it may also delay the end of the assault in Marjah district and put NATO forces in danger.

"The key to this whole thing is to get the people on our side. To make them understand it's a safe place. If we secure the people, the Taliban become irrelevant," said Marine Captain Ryan Sparks.

"It is frustrating but it's the right way to do it because it protects the people."

NATO forces are taking preventive measures, including sending A-10 jets to kill Taliban militants planting explosives. A-10s are designed for close air support for ground forces, meaning they can hit targets without firing large ordnance.

The Taliban are digging in for a fight to the death, the Pentagon has said, increasing the chances of heavier fighting that could endanger civilians.

Four NATO troops were killed on Thursday, bringing the Afghan-NATO coalition's death toll to 13 since the assault began on Saturday and underscoring the threat from hidden bombs and snipers.

NATO and Afghan troops have hit pockets of stiff resistance in Marjah and may need another month to fully secure the area, a NATO commander said on Thursday.


Abdelkareem, 70, is one example of why the Marines cannot afford to speed up their operations if they want to avoid intense battles, especially since NATO told Marjah residents to stay home.

Tearful, he lifted the edge of a pale blue sheet from his daughter's corpse, revealing her dead three-week-old baby by her side. A mortar hit the house in which he and his family were staying.

It is not clear whether the Marines or Taliban fired the mortar but the Marines provided compensation.

"It pains us all to know what you're going through with the loss that you just suffered," said a Marine Sergeant before handing out compensation.

The Taliban, Afghan military officials say, are firing on troops from houses in residential areas, inviting heavy retaliation.

"We have to clear and search houses from where we get shots fired, and that also slows down our efforts," Afghan army General Sher Mohammad Zazai said.

Air support from the Americans may be wishful thinking.

"The approval process takes a long time," said Sparks.

Before carrying out strikes, Marines take time to conduct aerial surveillance to determine whether there are women and children on the ground, he said.

NATO says its main focus now is clearing improvised explosive devices and mines. Some projects are also underway such as finding a location for the deputy district governor's office.

But some civilians have more immediate concerns, putting more pressure on the troops in addition to battling the Taliban.

"We are running out of food, and we can't go out due to heavy fighting and landmines," said a shopkeeper in Marjah, holding a satellite phone.

"I speak to you with extreme fear. If the Taliban see me with a satellite phone, they won't spare me, thinking I am a spy."

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

(Additonal reporting by Hamid Shalizi: Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Bryson Hull and Janet Lawrence)